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How to organize your family once and for all

The laundry. Menu planning, Doctor and dentist appointments. After-school activities. Managing a family is no small task. “Just” a mom? There are, frankly, days when the President has it easier. He, after all, has a staff of people to support him, whereas you have children who think that “helping” means decoupaging the Sunday paper to the dining room table. A home operations manual can be your secret weapon in the war on chaos.

Mom with manual

Five children and two adults populate this home, which means that we buy a lot of groceries, make a lot of meals, do a lot of laundry, clean the floor a lot, pack a lot of lunches — you get the picture. There’s a lot to do. And even if your family can fit in a sedan, there’s still a lot of work involved in raising a family.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t like being the only person in the family who knows how to do everything. I believe that others should also share the knowledge of how to operate complicated machinery like the toaster, the washer, and the bathroom sink. So I decided to approach my home life as I would a client project: I created a home Operations Manual.

They will judge the book by its cover

From the get-go, I set out to create an Operations Manual, and I packaged it in a navy blue three-ring binder. If I had called it “Mom’s Journal” or “Family Planner” or anything else, and if I had chosen a prettier binder with — perish the thought — decorations, my husband would never have bothered to open it. Instead, labeled the binder Operations Manual and set it out on the kitchen counter. It took about 3 minutes for my husband to take a peek. I highly recommend that you keep your audience in mind and use a title and theme that will appeal to your family.

There are sections of the binder that I want my kids to access regularly. Again, appearance matters, so I used colored dividers and tabs to entice the kids to the areas I want them to visit. Sneaky? Perhaps. Effective? Absolutely.

Content is king

An operations manual is only as good as the information it contains. In mine, the first page is for babysitters and other caregivers. It lists the names and ages of my kids, our home address and phone number, local numbers for poison control and our constable, and contact information for several close neighbors.

Could your kids handle an emergency? Find out!

Always keep your goal in mind when creating content for your manual. My goal is to make it easy for others to do jobs, so my meal planning pages are easy-to-follow worksheets, along with copies of favorite menus and recipes with very specific instructions (Press “Bake 350 Bake” to start the oven.). At the beginning of the week, my kids make lunch choices and check them off, which means that anyone who can read can make lunch.

All the pages in my binder, by the way, are in sheet protectors. That way, spills can be easily wiped up. In addition, I can use a wet erase marker to jot notes on the page as needed and erase them afterwards with a damp cloth.

More tips for organizing your family.

Track your tasks

For a week or so, keep track of your tasks each day. Doing laundry? Take five minutes to sit down and write out instructions for the job. (Turn dial to Normal and pull it out to fill the machine with water. Fill the detergent measuring cup halfway and dump it in. While the washer fills, sort the laundry into darks and lights. Etc.)

Remember, write for your audience. Keep your instructions brief but specific — bulleted or numbered lists are great. In office-speak, you’re documenting your processes. In plain English, write down everything you do so that someone who had never done the job before could do it from your instructions.

Need help getting your kids to help with housework? Get tips here for getting kids to do their chores.

When you’re ready to test out your manual, let someone choose a task and watch them follow your directions. Don’t intervene unless you have to — try to let the instructions speak for themselves. Only provide answers if your helper is about to cause permanent damage to people or things.

Train your crew to check the manual

Your manual won’t do any good if no one uses it. So when your kids are hungry, let them refer to the instructions for “How to make a grilled cheese sandwich.” Your tween has no clean clothes? Show him the instructions for doing the laundry. Over time, your family will learn to check the manual first. And you can revel in the joy of an operation that practically runs itself.

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